Pam Withers is the best-selling, award-nominated author of more than a dozen adventure novels particularly popular with teen boys. They include Peak Survival, Skater Stuntboys and Vertical Limits. She lives in Vancouver.
During her 30-year career as a high school teacher, Cynthia Gill worked on innovative curricula development and served as an academic dean while winning acclaim for her work in the classroom. Gill has taught as an adjunct faculty member at Globe University and enjoys public speaking, particularly on parent education. She has led numerous groups of students on educational and service trips to Russia, Germany and Latin America. A former homeschooling mom, she also served as a consultant to homeschooling families with an accrediting organization. She lives in Minneapolis.
Pam and Cynthia on Teaching Boys
How did you each get into child development, particularly helping with educating boys?
C: I have always loved children, and wanted to be a teacher from a young age. As I taught and raised boys of my own, I saw the struggles they had, and that piqued my interest even more.
P: I’ve written 15 bestselling adventure novels particularly popular with boys, and the feedback I received from teachers and librarians — that my books help get reluctant reader boys to read — started me on a journey of exploring what reluctant readers are and why the majority are boys.
Why do you think our in house data reveals that teachers and educators are searching for “Teach Boys” at least 9:1 over “Teach Girls”?
C: Boys start out with a number of things against them: brain development lag, which causes them to struggle with processing words. Our school system really encourages them to start before they are ready and then places them in a crowded classroom with orders to become like girls! Sitting still and writing neatly (coloring within the lines for example) is not a strength of theirs at ages 5,6, & 7. Many homeschoolers who wait to start their kids (esp. boys) later seem to understand this. Boys like to grandstand, and they just need more supervision, which makes them less likely to win the teacher’s favorite student of the year award in elementary school. They sense this and then many give up trying quite young.
P: Boys tend to respond less enthusiastically to school than girls, for all the reasons we point out in our book: lack of male role models (esp. re reading); a physical brain lag that many parents and educators think is resolved by school age, when in fact it goes on well into the teens and requires certain types of extra support and encouragement; a school system that is auditory-based, which tends to favor girls over boys; a lack of boy-friendly books or the effort to seek them out (our book makes that easy); and the fact that parents tend to read to boys less often and for shorter periods than they do girls (perhaps because the boys are fidgeting, when in fact adults need to understand that fidgeting often helps some kids focus, and should even be encouraged — like the dad who reads to his son while his son is jumping on the trampoline).
If you were given the forced constraint of answering one thing, can you boil down for me the one distinguishing factor for getting through to boys as opposed to girls in the classroom?
C: Learn to discipline more effectively! Two of my favorite resources for classrooms are Love & Logic in the classroom (www.loveandlogic.com) and Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline in the Classroom. Too many teachers use shame, and harsh, punitive methods that don’t really help a child change inside. Educate the parents on these too.
P: Let them move around more before, during and after academic time.
What compelled you each to write Jumpstarting Boys? What about collaborating on it?
C: My heart went out to my boy students and friends of my sons. Pam suggested the idea, and we both realized we needed the other one to pull it off. She has tremendous experience writing and publishing, and is exemplary in thoroughness of research. I have stories from 30 years of teaching & professional training on the brain, and the role of emotions in children’s development.
P: The first part I’ve answered above; the second part: the adventure of getting to know Cynthia better, and feeling that we each brought complementary skills and background to the project. I came away with much greater respect and fondness for her, and our relationship has blossomed!
What is a great tip from your book you recommend for parents teachers and people who deal with young boys alike?
C: Reading buddies! Pair a reluctant reader with a younger reader and he will begin to see himself differently. The gains are amazing.
P: Read to them or with them at least 15 minutes per day, preferably finding a male role model to do this regularly, and see if you can match them with a younger struggling reader to allow them to be an older “reading buddy,” which can put rocket launchers on his reading abilities as well as on his younger buddy’s abilities.
Boys are diagnosed with ADHD, and put on medication at very young ages. Have you any thoughts on this phenomenon?
C: Yes, I think that many of these boys really have anxiety, as the symptoms mimic those of anxious kids. Much anxiety stems from not having a good connection with a parent, and from anxious parents who have not dealt with their own emotional issues. Our book contains a story about the truck driver who was told that his son had ADHD. He thought that meant he needed to spend more time paying attention to him, so he picked him up before and after school, allowing him to ride on his route with him. The symptoms disappeared as the child engaged more with his dad! Now of course not all cases end this way, but it shows the power of an engaged and involved parent.
P: See my reference to the fidget factor above; we need to develop a greater tolerance for their fidgeting and for the more kinesthetic ways of learning that allow it, while also restricting screen time at home to the recommended 2 hours daily maximum, due to the links established between screen time as a toddler and ADHD later on.
What is a common problem with boys in the classroom that can be turned into an opportunity?
C: They want to do more acting, kinesthetic type of things. How about starting a boys’ reading and/or writing club, where they can do those things. Encourage them to let their imaginations run. Or assign them more hand-on type of projects for telling the class what they have read. I had a boy build a whole village out of Styrofoam for a “book report” once, and my colleague, the English teacher across the hall, allowed them to dramatize their stories for the class a an option.
P: Encourage them to fidget while you read by having them build something of clay, Playdough or Legos that is related to what you’re reading about. Or create “whisper phones” for very young boys, as in plastic tubes from a hardware store with your lips at one end and his ears at the other, while reading to him. Teachers swear by it!
How to get in touch with Pam and Cynthia:
Cynthia’s publisher on Twitter: @VivaEditions